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Eagles fondly remember defensive coordinator Johnson at memorial

PHILADELPHIA -- Confined to a scooter because the cancer in his spine made it too difficult for him to walk or stand, Jim Johnson rode around the practice field with that same watchful eye, instructing his players like nothing was wrong.

The camaraderie of being with the players, putting together a defense -- that was the best medicine for Johnson. When he took a break from cancer treatments in May to work the Philadelphia Eagles' minicamp, he didn't dwell on his deteriorating health.

Johnson was there to coach.

So he coached.

Those few days were Johnson's last on a football field. They endure as moments in time that his players will never forget.

"He seemed like his same old self," defensive tackle Trevor Laws said. "I'm sure he was putting on a real big face for us, trying to show us he was doing well. He was getting on guys, making jokes. He was yelling, 'Everybody behind the cart,' and making us laugh. I thought he was going to be all right. He hid it."

Johnson drove that red, motorized cart around like someone who simply had a broken leg. If a rookie made a mistake, he let him know. When a veteran player was out of position, he chewed him out.

"He was the same Jim, the same focus," safety Quintin Mikell said. "He could see where everybody was. He could see all the mistakes. Mentally, he was sharp. He was getting on guys, same way as he always does. The only difference was he was in the cart.

"Jim was always a guy about his football. You never really got the sense it was as bad as it was. You can tell he didn't want it to be about him and he wanted us to focus on football."

Johnson missed the rest of the team's offseason practices, and assistant Sean McDermott -- with his mentor's blessing -- was promoted to defensive coordinator two days before training camp opened.

On July 28, the day before veterans were scheduled to report to camp, Johnson lost his six-month battle with cancer at age 68. On Friday, he was honored in a private memorial service at Lincoln Financial Field.

Eagles coach Andy Reid canceled practice so the entire team could be there, joined by players and former players from around the league. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell attended the memorial, as did a number of Johnson's coaching disciples, including Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh and St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo.

Looking back at that minicamp, Eagles players say they now realize how much it must have meant to Johnson to be on the field with them one more time.

"Being around football and being a coach for so long, you have that comfort level doing something you love," Mikell said. "I think being out there made him at ease and made him feel good. I think he enjoyed it and it got his mind off it. It's unfortunate what happened."

Johnson never complained about his predicament and didn't want sympathy. When he addressed the media after a practice session on May 2, Johnson downplayed his cancer and referred to it as an "injury." He thanked fans and reporters for their concern, answered some questions about the illness and talked football as usual.

"It's great," Johnson said about his participation. "It's a part of my life and it keeps me going. I don't feel any different coaching. I'm coaching the same way. We've got a great bunch of assistants."

Johnson, who was treated for melanoma in 2001, suffered from back pain in January. He coached from the press box during the Eagles' playoff victory over the New York Giants and in the NFC Championship Game loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

Johnson's defense was at its best in the 23-11 victory over the Giants, sending the defending Super Bowl champions home. The Eagles swarmed, suffocated and harassed quarterback Eli Manning, shutting down New York's passing game and containing the league's best rushing attack.

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After the game, Reid praised Johnson and took a playful jab at him for sitting in the press box.

"I have the best defensive coordinator in the NFL," Reid said. "The guys believe in him and the things he does. He's kept it fresh for them. For being almost 100 years old, he's kept it fresh. If you noticed, he sat in the box. The poor guy, his back is aching."

No one could have known then that it would be Johnson's last shining moment in the NFL.

An MRI that week alerted doctors that something might be wrong. Following the loss to the Cardinals in which the defense played poorly, the Eagles announced the cancer had returned and Johnson would undergo more treatments. He returned for the post-draft camp, but he had to take a leave of absence later in the month to continue his treatments.

Johnson coached 23 seasons in the NFL, including the last 10 as Philadelphia's defensive coordinator. He was known as a defensive mastermind, and his defenses consistently were among the best in the league, including last season, when the Eagles ranked third.

For many of his players, Johnson was more than just a coaching genius. He was a father figure, particularly to the young guys.

"He cared about everybody," veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown said. "He would you give you the shirt off his back. My first year, he sat down and talked to my parents. Not a lot of coaches do that. I'm blessed to have known him."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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